Sunday, May 1, 2016

GDC 2016 - Art Leadership Roundtable - Day 1

We started the first day's session with a topic that has received a lot of past praise.  We started with attendees listing the traits of successful Art Leaders.  Here are the attributes listed by the audience, and I had pointedly asked that current art leaders abstain from listing traits.
  • Ability to think critically - to analyze and react to both art content as well as gameplay changes.
  • Ability to teach - This isn't always about teaching an artist how to use the tools, but instead teaching others how to make good choices and how to work as a team.
  • Being able to rally the team behind an idea - absolutely critical to the cohesion of a group
  • Having an artistic eye - This may seem obvious, so I would add that being able to explain clearly why you make certain artistic choices.
  • Make decisions promptly and communicate decision to the team - I would also add transparency to the decision making process.  Ultimately, the art leader is responsible for the choices he or she makes, but should make every effort to explain why.
  • Not micromanage - This is about establishing goals (strategy) without feeling the need to control processes (tasks).
  • Presentation - the ability to stand in front of the team and speak confidently and directly
  • Knowing the strengths of the team; having empathy for the team - This is about knowing the team well enough that you're putting people in positions in which they can have the greatest impact -- building to strengths rather than correcting for weaknesses.
  • Relinquishing control - being able to trust the team (which relates to the micromanaging comment above)
  • Flexibility - Game development is hard.  The targets are always shifting and the ability to react and adapt to these changes helps the team to not become frustrated.  This is about your ability as a leader as well as your impact as a role model.
  • Open to new ideas; look to elevate ideas.  The art leader shouldn't expect themselves to have all the answers.  Rather, look for opportunities for the team to provide input and suggestions.  Art leaders are often spread to thin, and this is a key opportunity to delegate responsibility to others and provide them an opportunity to grow.
  • Understand the game - This means caring about more than just the art.  The art is just one facet of the total player experience.  Unfortunately, this often means that the art leader spends a lot of time in meetings and gameplay reviews, but this is a critical prerequisite to making good artistic choices as a leader.
  • Candor / Directness / Honesty.  This speaks for itself, especially as it relates to giving others feedback on performance.
  • Ability to prioritize.  As noted above, the art leader is often spread too thin.  A good leader develops the ability to tell between what is urgent and what is important.  Speaking from personal experience, it took me many years to learn the lesson that the important thing should always trump the urgent thing.  Sometimes I still lose track of that fact.
  • Able to support other decisions, especially those coming from other departments.  There are many leaders on a game team.  Fracture between departments can readily disrupt the ability of the team to function.  While creativity breeds conflict and is often part of the process, it is up to the leaders to see that such conflict does not breed resentment or finger-pointing.
  • Scope and Time Management.  The ability to work within limitations is often the most challenging aspect of leadership in our industry.
  • Tools / Technology - It's important to understand the limitations of content creation so as not to design outside the boundaries of what is reasonably possible.  While it is not necessary to know every aspect of a pipeline, it's important to understand the cost of a decision.  To be clear, cost can be measured in time, money as well as lost opportunities.
  • Take responsibility for failure / Admit when you're wrong.  It's important to understand that leaders didn't get to their position by never making mistakes.  If you aren't making mistakes, you aren't taking enough risks.  It's how you respond to those mistakes that defines you as a leader.
  • Provide Mentorship / Career Growth.  Challenge others and look for opportunities for others to tackle work that would normally be beyond their role.  Even if others fail, it's an opportunity for you to provide guidance and to teach.
  • Save the team from meetings.  Generally, I am not a fan of meetings.  However, game development is complex and comprised of a wide array of factors.  As a leader, is important that you stay informed.  As a good leader, it is equally important that you create an environment where the team is focused on the most important things.  It's better that you be in a meeting, and communicate the results of the meeting afterwards, than for the majority of your team be away from their desks.
It was at this point that I asked current art leaders what traits they observed (different from those listed) in successful leaders.
  • Courage - This was an interesting comment and so I asked the group at large how courage manifested itself in a leader.
    • Taking the first step - not waiting for someone else to solve the problems, but taking initiative when required
    • Defend the department - being able to take a stance on what is important for the health of the department.
    • Difficult conversations / negotiation - the ability to manage conflict and work clearly and openly towards resolution
    • Pretending to know what you're doing.  This was a particularly interesting one.  We talked briefly about "imposter syndrome;" however, the core of this comment had to do with confidence even in the face of uncertainty.
    • The ability to say "No."  This was a good one.  As others have noted, creativity (art, writing, music) is often more about subtraction than addition.  It's up to the art leader to know when to cut, even if it's something they or the team wants.
    • Hold the path.  Ultimately, this was about holding a consistent vision.  It's not about stubbornness; an art leader must know when they've made the wrong decision.  It is, instead, about not overreacting in the face of criticism or discouragement.  Tactics may change, but strategy should go through refinement not rewrites.
  • Manage expectations - This is a broad idea. In short, the art leader needs to communicate the quality bar, but also clarify expectations on what is reasonable for delivery. There are actually many expectations that need to be managed in the leadership role.
  • Delegation - As noted above, the art leader is frequently overburdened. The best way to tackle this situation is to identify the strengths of your team members and seek out opportunities to delegate more work to others. Even if they may not do the work the same way that you do, it's a great opportunity to challenge others and at the same time free up some of your own time for higher priorities. 
  • One-on-Ones / Solicit feedback - a strong leader makes time for individual meetings. More importantly, the leader creates a safe environment to solicit feedback on their own performance. The strong art leader recognizes that their role has as much to do with providing support to the team as it does providing direction. 
  •  Creating Art - this was an unexpected comment, which we pursued further. 
    • With the team / not too distant - Even if the art leader isn't focused on creating specific content, it's still important that they be part of the art team rather than becoming too disconnected. Many art leaders maintain their connection through art critiques, providing paint overs and making time to sit with the team and solicit their own critique on work. 
    • Lost time creating art - the counterpoint is that too much time focused on creating art comes at the expense of not directing the team. It's a balancing act for sure. 
    • Loss of trust - if the art leader becomes too disconnected from the art team and from the art content, the team may slowly begin losing trust in their leadership. 
    • Hard to create art when reactionary.  This comment was focused on the need to be forward-looking.  In truth, much of art direction is reacting to what has been created, and as the team grows in size and as the project moves into later production stages, it does become more difficult to function as an individual contributor.
    • There are different expectations for mobile.  This comment was useful as much of the expectations we set for larger teams don't translate well to mobile development or smaller team sizes.  For example, on smaller teams, the art leader is much more likely to be needed for crafting content because everyone "wears a lot of hats."
    • Take the thankless work.  It's important that the art leader not just take the prime assignments.  The comment suggested that the leader take the worst work.  Having had more time to think on it, I think it's more important that the art lead take the work that makes the most sense -- the team focuses on their strengths and so does the art leader.
    • Fixing art for consistency - This relates to the need to craft paintovers.  The art leader should make every effort to ensure that there are few if any gross discrepancies in art style or quality.
    • Tech fixes - At other studios, the art leader may find themselves in a role where they are driving the technical efficiency of art content.  As noted above, this requires that the art leader has a strong knowledge of the pipeline
For the second half of the session, I asked the attendees to list the traits of "challenged" Art Leaders.  I asked that they not just list the antonyms of the positive traits.  Rather, the goal was to call out observable problems in leadership.  I've culled those items listed in the session that are explained above.
  • Ego - Ego is a double-edged sword, as noted previously on this blog.  In the negative case, ego blinds the art leader to their own shortcomings and prevents them from identifying (and addressing) problem areas of the project.
  • Personal Preference > product needs - The challenged leader puts their own subjective opinions ahead of what the project needs or what the gameplay dictates.
  • Not balancing work/life; being a role model - Many art leaders work hard and work long hours with the team.  As in any other profession, there are some who meet the criteria of "workaholic."  This comment is caution for the art leader who fails to balance work and life and thereby sets an unrealistic example for the team.
  • Reviewing in isolation / unbalanced feedback - The art leader is best reviewing content with the team rather than separate from the team.  Receiving notes third-hand often lacks context and results in feedback that become "unbalanced" -- not in sync with other aspects of the game.
  • Fails to celebrate success - The art leader needs to be careful not to just focus on problem areas without calling attention to the things that are genuinely successful.
  • Lack of clarity - "make it pop" - There's a certain amount of "art-speak" that all art leaders are subject to.  However, the failure to provide clarity can lead to confusion and frustration.  The art leader is better off referring to specific elements of design, color and/or composition.
  • Non-collaborative - throws other under the bus - As noted, the ego-driven art leader cannot accept their own failure and will be inclined to blame the team rather than take responsibility for their mistakes.
  • Can't communicate values - One of the most critical steps in communicating vision is to identify the values or the pillars for the art style.  This sets the criteria by which critique functions.
  • Can't answer "why" - The art leader needs to be able to answer this question.  Making a subjective art call is insufficient.
  • Playing favorites - This one can be tricky.  Oftentimes, the art leader has come up through the ranks with other artists.  They may achieve the position of art leader having already built a number of strong relationships with others.  Therefore, it's critical that the art leader not reinforce perceptions of favoritism -- rather all artists should be critiqued in the same manner.  In addition, an art director should make every effort NOT to select their leads based on those people they like -- rather, the art director should focus on the abilities and the likelihood that the lead will complement the abilities of the director (making up for their own potential weak spots).
  • Impatience - As noted, the art leader can be overburdened.  However, it's critical that the time that is devoted to the team isn't hurried or seem unimportant.  That isn't to say that the art leader can't push for efficient use of their time.
  • Drive-by feedback; skipping past the structure - This one is critical to any leadership structure with layers.  If leads are in place, then the director should endeavor to drive feedback with the lead or through interaction.  If the director gives feedback in conflict with the lead, it can undermine the team's confidence.
Our first session went by too quickly.  However, it was a great start to the sessions and paved the way for topics on subsequent days. 

Speaker Evaluation

Lastly, I wanted to do something new with the write-up this year.  Here is the raw, unedited report from the day's roundtable

Art Leadership Roundtable: Day 1

Wednesday, March 16th at 2:00 pm

Room 120, North Hall
Total Headcount: 92

Roundtable Session Ranking within Visual Arts Track: your session is ranked 10 of 12

Roundtable Session Ranking within GDC 2016: your session ranked 38 of 59

Session Totals (This Session)
Percentage of Responses

This round table had a very well organized structure, while remaining adaptive to the natural flow of the group conversation.
Direct, but very quiet audience. Wish there was more to it in just one seasion. I know, people complain, but overall it was good.

Very proactive round table ... Very successful

It was really hard to hear what everyone was saying, maybe use microphones?

I enjoyed it and found the host lively and out going.

Really helpful session with an excellent speaker. Can't wait for Day Two

Fantastic energy and a good group effort to define what a good (and challenged) AD is made of.

Presenter was charismatic, but the content of the talk felt top level, didn't really dig into the topic.

I normally l love this round table. This year the conversation was subdued and many talked to the moderator mostly. I thought it was a waste of time to do a list of "qualities of challenged ADs" when we had just listed good traits? It's just the flip side of the first list and felt like we were covering the same ground.

Great and loved the info especially the different thoughts between perception of an Art Director and what one actually does.

Amazingly great! Love the speaker!

Very insightful

Sometimes difficult to hear. Also I missed more discussions instead of just write a list with quite obvious things. Too big group?

This roundtable session (and the others) were by far my favorite sessions because of my chance of participation and being among both beginners and veterans.

Great interactive talk, lots of good shared ideas and lessons.

Fantastic I love they way this was done. Best speaker by far.

Good discussion and insights for art direction from peers and senior artists.

I really enjoyed participating in this round table

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! Thanks so much, this is a life saver as I need to do a presentation. The round tables were definitely the highlight of my GDC experience.